IPOs stage comeback in Q1

Just when it seemed that an exit via an IPO had become more of a pipe dream than an ROI strategy, public offerings are back in vogue, at least for one quarter.

Over the past four weeks, at least six venture- and private equity-backed companies went public on U.S. exchanges, with several posting the kinds of first-day stock price pops reminiscent of a bubblier era.

Market watchers, meanwhile, predict more to come.

“With the number of global tech deals doubling from the fourth quarter last year and U.S. venture-backed companies beginning to see daylight, we could be witnessing the revival of the IPO market’s traditional growth sectors,” wrote analysts at Renaissance Capital in an overview of Q1 IPOs.

Communications networking companies, which have seen scant IPO exit activity in recent years, staged among the most forceful comebacks. Three have gone public in the past two weeks, all pricing at or above the high end of proposed share price ranges.

Shares in wireless network provider Meru Networks (Nasdaq: MERU) closed up 28% in first-day trading on March 31. Key shareholders include Clearstone Venture Partners (21% pre-IPO stake), Vision Opportunity Master Fund (19%), NeoCarta Ventures (18%) Bluestream Ventures (16%) and D.E. Shaw (16%). Meru has raised $171 million in venture funding since 2002, according to Thomson Reuters (publisher of PE Week).

Telecom equipment maker Calix Networks (NYSE: CALX) also posted double-digit gains in its debut a week earlier. The Petaluma, Calif.-based provider of communications access systems and software, priced its offering of 6.3 million shares at $13 per share, the high end of its proposed range. The stock closed up 16% in first-day trading and was trading last week at about $14 a share.

Previously, Calix had raised about $220 million in venture funding from Foundation Capital, TeleSoft Partners, Azure Capital Partners, Meritech Capital Partners, Redpoint Ventures, Contrarian Capital Management, Credit Suisse, Kinetic Ventures, Menlo Ventures and Integral Capital Partners.

Broadband chipmaker MaxLinear (NYSE: MXL) had a similarly warm welcome for its debut the same day. The Carlsbad, Calif.-based broadband chipmaker raised $90 million in its IPO, which priced slightly above the anticipated range and gained another 18% in first-day trading. The stock was trading last week at about $17 a share.

Previously, MaxLinear raised $35 million in VC funding from U.S. Venture Partners (21.62% pre-IPO stake), Battery Ventures (13.75%), Mission Ventures (13.03%) and UMC Capital (7.09%).

Telecommunications-related companies weren’t the only ones making their debuts in the last three months. SS&C Technologies Holdings Inc. (Nasdaq: SSNC), a Windsor, Conn.-based financial management software company majority-owned by The Carlyle Group, raised about $160 million in its IPO. The company priced nearly 10.73 million shares at $15 per share, compared to an offering range of between $13 and $15 per share.

China Lodging Group (Nasdaq: HTHT), operators of a discount hotel chain in China, raised $110.25 million in its IPO. Shareholders of the Cayman Islands-based company include Chengwei Ventures (4.93% post-IPO stake), IDG Venture Capital (2.85%) and Northern Light Venture Capital (2.12%).

Shares of Financial Engines Inc., which sells financial analysis based on the work of Nobel laureate and co-founder William Sharpe, closed 44% above its IPO price on March 16, making it one of the best IPO performances in months. Shareholders of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company include Foundation Capital (17.4% pre-IPO stake), New Enterprise Associates (14.4%) and Oak Hill Capital Partners (9.3%).

Meanwhile, at least 10 venture- and private equity-backed companies filed to go public in the past four weeks.

They include two financial services companies, such as Envestnet, a provider of investment tools for financial advisors that is looking to raise $100 million, and Higher One, a provider of services for higher education financing that filed to raise up to $100 million.

In the communications sector, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Beceem Communications, which develops chipsets for 4G applications, filed for a $100 million public offering, and Telx Group, a provider of managed network services, filed to raise $100 million.

Two semiconductor companies also filed, including Alpha & Omega Semiconductor, a venture-backed developer of power semiconductors, which is looking to raise $116 million; and MagnaChip Semiconductor, a private equity-backed South Korean maker of analog and mixed-signal semiconductor products, which filed for a $250 million IPO. The company previously filed for a $575 million IPO in late 2007, but pulled the offering due to “unfavorable market conditions.” It later filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, wiping out previous shareholders.

Others lining up at the IPO launching pad include SciQuest, a Cary, N.C.-based developer of supply chain management applications that aims to raise up to $75 million; IronPlanet, an operator of an auction site for used heavy equipment that is seeking to raise $92 million; Energy and Power Solutions, a provider of energy efficiency solutions seeking $25 million; and SeaCube Container Leasing, a container leasing business and subsidiary of a Fortress Investment Group portfolio company, which filed for a $165 million IPO.